In a nondescript brick building west of the Loop, behind a massive red door, Joe Sherman and a small, dedicated staff create some of the most dazzling hand-painted silk ties ever to shock a shirtfront.
Be warned--this is not neckwear for beginners. Sure, you can find time-honored traditionals--the buxom nude languishing on a background of plum-colored silk, the pina colada in hot pink and baby blue (with two straws)--but these just provide a counterpoint to the vast numbers of ties in more updated patterns, stripes, and motifs. Almost electric in intensity, with colors as strong as a double espresso, these neckties are guaranteed attention-getters.
At age 78, their creator radiates the energy, warmth, and humor of a Disney elf. Joe Sherman got his start in the working world when he was 13, laying out advertising for the Chicago Daily News, which he claims gave him "a bit of background to the art side." At 20, he went into the fabric business and began experimenting on the side hand-painting dyes onto silk.
After seven years of modest success selling fabrics, Sherman concluded, "If you want to make any kind of a decent profit you have to deliver a finished product to the public. This was in your rough days when a dollar was a dollar, not like today." So in 1940, with his wife Faye, he opened his own hand-painted-tie shop, called Sherman's Accessories, and things took off. In 1946 Sherman took over the financially troubled tie manufacturer Besley's, which grew under his stewardship to 60 employees and six retail shops. He also made ties for Marshall Field's for 25 years.
Sherman claims an active role in the birth of the hand-painted tie. "I'd say we are the originators," he says. "People had been messing around with junk ties--you know, painting stuff on that lies on top of the tie like rubber, but we were the first to make a hand-painted tie in which the painted design becomes part of the fabric."
Sherman's extroverted ties begin their lives humbly in his third-floor studio as a four-foot-wide roll of white silk. A 12-yard length is stretched out on one of the four worktables. Then the artists sketch on the design that will become that tie's signature. Magda Kowalik-Gadek, an art student for six years in Poland before coming to the United States in 1989, has been designing ties at Sherman's studio for a year. She gets her ideas, she says, from "every shape in life. First in mind, and second in every piece of nature that I see, may be inspiration."
After sketching the pattern, the artists paint on the dyes. "These dyes are the heart of our business. They are all our own formulas," says Sherman, gesturing at the racks of jugs bearing labels such as "silk old plum," "tangerine," "chiffon black," and "silk wine." "We hired chemist after chemist until, . . . through about seven years of trial and error, we finally got it straight." Cryptically, he adds, "You know, color is an illusion. There is no such thing as color."
The now-painted silk, still in long sheets, is steamed, put through hot and cold washes, then returned to the worktables. There it is cut into tie, scarf, or pocket-square pieces and sent to Chinatown to be slip-stitched by hand.
What kind of man knots a Sherman necktie in the morning? "People who are interested in something a little different," says Sherman. "Or a lot different. People who like color. You start wearing these--see how many people stop you and ask where you bought it." Unlike their half-witted cousins the fish ties, baseball-bat ties, or other "joke" ties, these cravats generate attention not through sheer silliness (although some certainly are silly), but through their intriguing patterns and jolts of color.
By all indications, the future is as bright for Sherman as the ties themselves. He now works side by side with Lauren and John Grossman and Marc Cohen, three entrepreneurs who liked his ties so much they recently bought into the operation. The shop just expanded to an upper floor, tripling the tie painting space, and has added such items as hand-painted suspenders and boxer shorts. Tour groups shuffle through frequently. At prices starting at $30 apiece (if you buy them at the shop), these ties are a bargain, although not as much of one as in 1950, when, according to a yellowed newspaper ad Sherman displays, three of his hand-painted silk ties could be had for $2.50.
Sherman himself predicts brisk business through the 90s. "When the dollar is tight, people want color. When the dollar is being made real easy, when conditions are good, neckwear is dull."
Sherman recently tried to retire, but after two months he "started climbing the walls" and returned to work. "It's a fun business," he admits. Asked whether he has any favorites among his ties, Sherman displays the tact of a diplomat and the emotions of a good father. "No," he says, "we love them all."
Sherman's shop, located at 624 W. Adams, is open from 7 to 5 Monday through Friday, or call 876-1480. Syd Jerome, Davis for Men, Stuart's, and Jeraz also carry Sherman ties under the stores' labels, and a special line designed by Chicago photographer Marc Hauser can be found at Bigsby & Kruthers.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.